Image credit: National Library of China – Beijing by IQRemix/Flickr; licence CC BY-SA 2.0.

Written by Zhidong Hao.

The Intellectual in Modern Chinese History is an epic work by Timothy Cheek, published by Cambridge University Press in 2015. It is a compendium of all the Chinese intellectuals who, over the past 120 years, have tackled the ‘three Rs’ of reform, revolution and rejuvenation (what Cheek calls ‘ideological moments’), trying to discover the meaning of ‘the people’, ‘Chinese’, and ‘democracy’ (the ‘enduring ideas’) in order to understand China’s future.

Through these three recurring ideological moments and three puzzling concepts, Cheek tells the story of the instrumental role of the intellectual in modern Chinese history. It is a story well told, even if the conclusion is somewhat discouraging: the themes constantly recur, the swing between the three Rs still hasn’t ended, and the concepts are still being debated after 120 years. Nonetheless, this makes the book a fascinating read for all those – concerned students and scholars in particular – who are wondering where China has been, where it is now, and where it is going.

China, quo vadis?

Cheek divides his discussion of the various ideological moments and the ideas, worlds and role of China’s intellectuals into six chapters. These are: (1) Reform (1895–1915); (2) Revolution (1915–1935); (3) Rejuvenation (1936–1956); (4) Revolutionary revival (1957–1976); (5) Reviving reform (1976–1995); and (6) Rejuvenation (1996–2015).

One wonders whether he shouldn’t now add a further chapter on ‘revolutionary revival’, since China seems to be continuing its swing between revolution (Mao), reform (Deng), rejuvenation (Jiang and Hu), and revolution again (Xi). Will this perhaps be followed by reform and rejuvenation in the future?

At the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, Xi Jinping was inaugurated as the new Paramount Leader, more powerful even than Deng the Paramount Leader and closely emulating Mao in relation to political control of the Party-state and society – if not surpassing Mao, as some have claimed.

This raises a number of important questions for Cheek and for all scholars interested in this intellectual exercise. First, what is the ideological moment of the so-called ‘new era’ of Xi Jinping? Second, how are the people, Chinese, and democracy now defined? And above all, what shape does intellectual life take today and what role do intellectuals play  within it?

In order to tackle these questions, we first need to learn how Cheek answers them in relation to the past 120 years of China’s history. As outlined above, Cheek vividly and neatly summarises China’s development in terms of ideological moments, described as ‘the intellectuals’ experience of historical context that shapes the questions of the day’ (p. 7). These moments comprise reform, revolution and rejuvenation.

Reform, revolution and rejuvenation

Specific examples include reform to change a troubled system by introducing some fundamentally new political and economic systems, as in the late Qing period of the 1890s and the Deng era of the late 1970s and most of the 1980s; revolution to ‘overthrow one system and put in place a new and radically different one’ (p. 7), as in the 1910s and 1920s and in the late 1950s and 1960s; and rejuvenation to ‘strengthen the administration of the state and make coherent the social life and public culture of a system’ (pp. 7–8), as between 1928 and 1955 and then again in the 1990s–2000s.

Whether China is now entering another round of revolution under Xi (beginning in 2013), and whether this will be followed by another round of reform and rejuvenation after Xi, remains to be seen.

Interestingly, even though times may change, the main characteristics of each stage remain more or less the same. For example, both the late Qing and the Deng-era reforms were meant to fix problems without fundamentally changing the system, whereas that is what Sun Yat-sen’s nationalist and Mao Zedong’s communist revolutions would later do.

Similarly, the moment of rejuvenation under Chiang Kai-shek between 1927 and 1937 had much in common with that of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao in the 1990s and 2000s. Just like the new life movement of Chiang, Jiang and Hu both focused on applying a systematic approach to social life and public culture, with Jiang’s ‘Three Represents’ (claiming that the Chinese Communist Party represents advanced productive forces, advanced culture, and the fundamental interests of the majority of the people in China), and Hu’s scientific development. It seems that while reform has always been difficult and faced many obstacles, rejuvenation is always threatened by revolution.

In Cheek’s view, the swing between reform, revolution and rejuvenation comes about partly because of the difference in intellectuals’ and political leaders’ interpretation of ‘the people’, ‘Chinese’ and ‘democracy’: the ‘enduring ideas’. Indeed, this is another organising theme of Cheek’s book which also deserves  highlighting: in different ideological moments, people define things differently.

So let us now turn to the second question and consider each of these ‘enduring ideas’ in turn.

Enduring ideas

The people

According to Cheek, the concept of ‘the people’ has a very interesting history in different ideological moments. For example, Liang Qichao’s generation transformed the traditional non-political word ‘group’ (qun) (meaning families and individuals) into ‘the people’, giving the category a political aspect, or xinmin (new people) (pp. 46, 64, 105).

For Liang Shuming, James Yen and Sun Yat-sen, people needed to be educated before they could practise democracy. For the communist revolutionaries, ‘the people’ referred to ‘the proletariat, progressive national bourgeoisie, and revolutionary intellectuals’ as opposed to ‘the capitalists, traitors, or reactionaries’, who did not come within the scope of ‘the people’ (p. 156). Now the term people had both a political aspect and an enemy.

Before the Cultural Revolution under Mao, ‘the people’ would mean the workers, peasants, soldiers and revolutionary cadres versus the enemy category of landlords, rich peasants, reactionaries, bad elements and rightists (p. 211). During the Cultural Revolution, the enemy category expanded to include traitors, special agents, spies and unrepentant capitalist roaders as well. So once again, there were people and non-people.

In the later reform era, however, a revival of the idea of the people as individuals was advocated by intellectuals such as Wang Ruoshui and Li Zehou, whereby ‘personal values become the focus of politics, not class struggle, not group identity’ (p. 257). This goes back to Zhang Junmai’s and Hu Shih’s ideas of humanism and individualism, which also relate to democracy in recognising that not all individuals would be likely to agree on all things, and therefore a mechanism like democracy is needed to create compromises in political life (pp. 83, 85, 156).

In the rejuvenation period of Jiang and Hu it was politically incorrect to talk about class struggle. Rather, people were supposed to talk about harmony. If there was any difference between people, it was between those with quality (素质) and those without. Since most Chinese were not of high quality, it was believed, they were not able to practise democracy (p. 313). Now we are back to Sun Yat-sen’s time when people needed to be educated before they could have universal suffrage. They were citizens, but they were not qualified to vote in elections above the village level. It is certainly now the established Party view that while people do have a political identity, they are not qualified to participate in democracy and instead have to be educated and managed.


How ‘the people’ is defined is connected with the idea of who counts as Chinese. In the Qing dynasty, people were subjects of the empire, but in the reform era in the late Qing, and in Liang Qichao’s eyes, they became citizens of China (p. 47). Who, then, counted as citizens? In the eyes of the revolutionaries like Sun Yat-sen and Zhang Binglin, only ethnic Chinese, i.e. those of the Han nationality, could be citizens of China (p. 49). The Manchus had to go.

Zhang Binglin later coined the term Zhonghua minzu (中華民族) in 1907, and claimed that other races could become Chinese only if they were culturally assimilated (tonghua) (pp. 49–50, 105). This was in essence what Sun Yat-sen also thought, even if he talked about a harmonious republic of five nationalities (五族共和) of the Han, Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans and Chinese Muslims (the Hui) (pp. 106, 156–157).

In the revolutionary period under Mao, to be Chinese was to be revolutionary (p. 212). But to be Chinese was still mainly to be Han. In the reform era of Deng, when the character flaws of Chinese civilisation were critiqued (p. 257), people were mainly referring to the Confucian culture.

In the rejuvenation period of Jiang and Hu, and even in the Xi era, the meaning of Chinese has remained contested (p. 313). Are Tibetans and Uyghurs Chinese? To say they are not is politically incorrect, but when people talk about the Chinese culture, or the essence of being Chinese, Tibetan, Uyghur and other minority cultures are left out. Chinese culture essentially means Confucianism and the heritage of the Yan and Huang Emperors, the supposed original ancestors of the Han Chinese.

If the Kongxi and Qianlong Emperors were able to hold China together by sidestepping issues of ethnicity or nationality (p. 323), the communist leaders seem unable to manage it without constantly using force. Intellectuals like Ma Rong, a professor at Peking University, advocate de-politicisation and treating minorities the same as  the Han without any form of affirmative action. The problem then is, when not even Han Chinese are given citizen status with political rights, how can the minorities be given theirs?

Ma Rong sidesteps those issues, but is Xi Jinping able to continue sidestepping and hold China together without the use of force? This problem also applies to the issues of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau where – particularly in Taiwan and Hong Kong – the meaning of ‘Chinese’ is hotly contested. This all has to do with democracy, which is the only way to hold the country together.


In fact, if we are to talk about the meaning of Chinese, we really have to go beyond ethnicity and into politics, to follow Liang Qichao. And this brings us to Cheek’s third term, ‘democracy’, since this gives essence and meaning to the term ‘Chinese’ in a political sense.

For Liang Qichao’s generation, including the revolutionaries, democracy did not mean ‘one person, one vote’ because, as we have seen, they thought people needed to be educated and ethnic minorities had to become Chinese first (p. 65). Democracy was meant only for the wealthy, educated and propertied elite Chinese.

This didn’t work well after the founding of the Republic of China, however. Under Sun Yat-sen’s ‘Three People’s Principles’ (民族nationalism, 民權democracy, and 民生people’s livelihood), the Kuomintang (KMT) would develop democracy following the stages of military rule, provisional constitutional rule (political tutelage) and then constitutional rule (p. 72). Later, in line with Leninist teaching, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) practised ‘democratic centralism’ with an emphasis on the latter; or simply ‘democratic dictatorship’ against the enemies of the people (pp. 107–111, 157).

In the rejuvenation or nation-building period from 1936 to 1950, the pursuit of democracy diverged along three paths: Chiang’s gradual change following Sun and supported by intellectuals such as Hu Shih; Mao’s communist democratic centralism supported by the likes of Deng Tuo; and liberalism as advocated by the Third Force intellectuals such as Liang Shuming (p. 116).

In the revolutionary period which followed the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the so-called ‘Four Big Freedoms’ of speaking out freely, airing one’s views freely, writing big-character posters, and holding great debates were simply another form of democratic centralism (pp. 212–213).

As it turned out, Chiang’s path succeeded in Taiwan in the 1980s, realising the dream of liberal intellectuals, while the democratic centralism (or people’s democratic dictatorship) succeeded in mainland China, frustrating liberalism. In the reform era under Deng, a more democratic Party and state system was discussed under the leadership of Zhao Ziyang, but his efforts were soon crushed by the weight of the failure of the 1989 democracy movement.

Deng adamantly insisted on the dominant rule by the Party, continuing Mao’s democratic centralist politics. In the Jiang and Hu periods which followed, because of the supposedly low quality of the people, once again no democracy could be implemented. This was a belief held by Liang Qichao’s generation which was then inherited by the Communists from Zhou Enlai right through to more contemporary leaders (p. 314).

Under Jiang and Hu, intellectuals were divided into the New Left, who believed only in economic democracy, the new Confucians, who believed in the current system of the Party selecting its leaders based on its own meritocratic standards, and the liberals, who believed in the political rights of the individual.

In the modern era of Xi Jinping, as the Party increasingly consolidates its power in all walks of life, democracy is becoming even more of a dream for the liberals, while the New Left and the new Confucians continue to have a cosy relationship with the Party. The ideas of the latter two groups are largely compatible with Xi Jinping Thought on ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, which is really a combination of Maoism and Dengism focusing on democratic centralism (or even totalitarianism).

If Sun Yat-sen and Mao succeeded as both ideological and political leaders (p. 324), will Xi be able to do the same? Will he lead China to stability, prosperity, cultural integrity, and international respect and leadership (p. 324) as he claims to be doing – and as Cheek thinks is already the case in many ways (p. 330)? The answer to this is not entirely clear for the reasons explained above, especially in regard to what is meant by the people, Chinese, and a democratic polity.

The role of the intellectual

This brings us to the third big question, as we ask: What is the role of the intellectual in China’s periods of reform, revolution and rejuvenation, given that it is the intellectuals who create meaning and search for the ‘correct thought’ to address China’s problems (p. 326) in each of the historical periods? This is actually the major theme of Cheek’s book, and he outlines several characteristics of the intellectuals’ role in relation to reform, revolution and rejuvenation that are worth examining.

Key figures

There is no doubt that the role of the intellectuals is important since they are the ones who, in various capacities, have created and practised the enduring ideas of the people, Chinese, and democracy.

During the reform era around the 1900s, the list would include Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, Zhang Binlin and Yan Fu (pp. 31–65). From 1976 to 1995 it would include Wei Jingsheng, Fang Lizhi, Wang Ruowang, Liu Binyan, Qin Benli, Bai Hua, Wang Ruoshui, Li Zehou, Liu Xiaobo, Gan Yang, Mo Yan, Wang Shuo, Su Tong, Su Xiaokang, Chen Ziming, Wang Juntao, the students in the 1989 democracy movement, and post-Tiananmen establishment intellectuals such as Su Shuangbi, Ru Xin, Xing Bensi and Liu Ji (pp. 219–258).

During the revolutionary era from 1915 to 1935, key intellectuals were Sun Yat-sen, Mao Zedong, Chen Duxiu, Li Da, Hu Shih, Lu Xun,  Ding Wenjiang, Zhang Junmai, Li Dazhao, Ding Ling, Liang Shuming and James Yen (pp. 70–112). Later, from 1957 to 1976, we can list Luo Longji, Xu Zhucheng, Ding Ling, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, Chen Boda, Zhou Yiliang, Tang Yijie, Yang Jiang, Qian Zhongshu, Yue Daiyun, Fang Lizhi, the Li Yizhe group (Li Zhengtian, Chen Yiyang, and Wang Xizhe), Lin Xiling and Zhang Rong (pp. 172–211).

Finally, in the rejuvenation periods, the list would include, first, Hu Shih, Chen Bulei, Wu Han,  Deng Tuo, Wang Shiwei, Ding Ling, Zhou Yiliang, Qian Xuesen and Liang Sicheng from 1936 to 1956 (pp. 132–156); and Chan Koonchung, Yu Keping, Wang Hui, Cui Zhiyuan, Xu Youyu, Xudong Zhang, Kang Xiaoguang, Gan Yang, Bai Tongdong, Daniel Bell, Xu Jilin, Qin Hui, Liu Xiaobo, Tan Zuoren, Ai Weiwei, He Weifang and Xu Zhiyong from 1995 to 2015 (pp. 262–312).

It should be noted that this is not a complete list and these are only representative intellectuals.

Saving China

What unites all of these intellectuals is a desire to save China. The question they pose has always been along the lines of ‘How are we going to save China?’; ‘How are we going to build China?’; ‘How are we going to build socialism or reform Chinese socialism?’ (p. 321). Or, as asked in an article by Hu Shih: ‘Which Road Are We Going?’ (p. 85).

Today, this question is still far from being answered. But to save China, to build China, is the call many of these intellectuals answered when they joined the Kuomintang (KMT) or the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), or even when dissenting against either party.

Engagement with Western ideas

In their efforts to save China, the intellectuals have always engaged with Western ideas, no matter whether these were liberal thoughts or communism. Yet nobody did so blindly. As Cheek points out, ‘Even the most ardent “Westernizers” among Chinese intellectuals were more adapters than adopters’ (p. 82).

The accusation that liberals want to copy Western democracy is, and always has been, false. Likewise, Chinese Marxism is very different from Marx’s Marxism, and China’s socialism is always with Chinese characteristics. As Wang Shiwei says: ‘Whenever a people are able in their own way to master something and make it serve them, then essentially it has already become “national”, no matter if it came from outside or was originally possessed – today it’s an import, tomorrow it’s our own’ (p. 143).

In the late twentieth century, Li Zehou would advocate ‘Western substance, Chinese application’, as opposed to Zhang Zhidong’s ‘Chinese learning for the fundamental principles, Western learning for practical application’ a century earlier (p. 237). China’s New Left is directly influenced by the New Left in the West, and even Confucians are using Western liberalism as their focus of analysis to see how Chinese culture can be used to address the problems of liberalism (p. 308).

A pact with the Devil

In their efforts to serve the state as part of the revolution, many intellectuals made ‘a deal with the Devil that came with severe constraints’, and they paid the price of their engagement (p. 117). Examples include Chen Bulei, Hu Shih and Ding Wenjiang with the KMT, and Wang Shiwei, Deng Tuo, Wu Han, Zhou Yiliang and Qian Xuesen with the CCP, when the political parties transformed them into revolutionary cadres or establishment intellectuals (pp. 124–125, 130–155, 178).

As Chen Bulei wrote in his suicide note in November 1948: ‘Ever since I left journalism, I have not been free to use my pen to express my own words. In truth, I am nothing more than a scribe, at most a secretary’ (p. 135). Wasn’t it the same with Deng Tuo, who committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution, and other communist intellectuals as well?

Qian Xuesen made his way through Mao’s revolution safely by his willingness to criticise other intellectuals and scientists publicly (p. 154), but isn’t that exactly how most other intellectuals managed to survive? Even less politically active intellectuals such as Yang Jiang and Qian Zhongshu paid the price for the years wasted in Mao’s continuing revolution (p. 192). Many others, especially dissidents, paid the ultimate price with their lives (p. 195).

The propaganda machine

One of those ‘severe constraints’ is the reality of the propaganda state, whether the nationalist state under Chiang Kai-shek or the communist state under Mao and his successors (pp. 125ff). Citing Peter Knez, Cheek defines the propaganda state as ‘a state-dominated polity that co-ordinates the education of cadres, the development of political language, the politicization of ever-larger segments of life, and the substitution of “voluntary” state-controlled societies for independent organizations’ (pp. 126–167).

Cheek calls this a ‘directed public sphere’, which is managed by the Propaganda Department of the CCP, where intellectual cadres are servants of the Party-state and where competing voices are removed or deeply attenuated (pp. 128–129, 322).

The ideological moment of Xi Jinping

We are now in a position where we can attempt to answer the three questions posed at the beginning, namely: What is the ideological moment of the so-called ‘new era’ of Xi Jinping? How are the people, Chinese, and democracy now defined? And what shape does intellectual life take today and what is the role of the intellectuals within it?

Is the current ideological moment one of reform, revolution or rejuvenation? It would seem that rejuvenation has ended and we are now entering a revolutionary revival phase. The personality cult has returned, and Xi Jinping is restoring Mao’s revolution by concentrating all the power in the Party and in his own hands: even civil society organisations have to establish Party branches. Every other Party leader will be responsible to Xi. The media are even more restricted than in the eras of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, and the public sphere is further directed by the Propaganda Department. Dissenting voices are silenced.

In the Xi era, just like in the Mao era, people are again classified into those who support the Party and those who don’t. The former would be ‘the people’, and the latter ‘the people’s enemies’. Or, to use the new terminology, ‘hostile forces in and outside China’ (海內外敵對勢力). We are back to Mao, although enemies are not annihilated; they are constrained, put in prison, or exiled.

The word Chinese must now include the minorities, and the latter have to be Sinicised and revolutionised, with the teaching of their own languages and cultures de-emphasised or even eliminated and their allegiance to the Party-state made absolute. As the Tianjin Party chief Li Hongzhong puts it: ‘If loyalty to the Party is not absolute, then it is absolutely not loyalty’. We are back to Sun Yat-sen and Mao.

As for democracy, it is no longer mentioned. Rather, democratic centralism and even one-man dictatorship is the order of the day in this ‘new era’. But is it really so new, in fact?

Intellectuals in the new era

Ethical dilemmas

How do intellectuals fare in the Xi era, then? Establishment intellectuals continue to exert an influence on China’s development. Wang Huning, for example, was promoted to the Standing Committee of the Politburo to become one of the top seven CCP leaders. He is not only an ideological leader, as before, but a political leader as well.

Wang is considered to have played an instrumental role in formulating flagship public policies for three consecutive Party leaders: The Three Represents for Jiang Zeming; the Scientific Outlook of Development for Hu Jintao; and China Dream for Xi Jinping. He is now emulating Chen Boda and Zhang Chunqiao during the Cultural Revolution. It is reasonable to assume that he must have been influential in formulating the most recent Xi Jinping Thought on ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ in the new era.

Nonetheless, one wonders whether Wang is facing the same ethical dilemma that Chen Bulei, Deng Tuo and other revolutionary cadres used to face. How much autonomy does he have? To what extent is he or will he be responsible for the political repression taking place in the new authoritarian, or even dictatorial China – what Stein Ringen terms ‘the perfect dictatorship’?

Countless other establishment intellectuals have now rushed to promote Xi Jinping as a wise and great leader and Marxist theorist, and to advocate and promote Xi Jinping Thought in its various aspects by writing in newspapers and establishing centres of Xi Jinping Thought at various universities and colleges. One would think that they must all be facing ethical dilemmas, but more research is needed on this to find out to what extent it is true.

We also need to study different establishment intellectuals, from high-level government advisers like Wang Huning, Lin Yifu and Hu Angang to low-level operatives of the Party propaganda machine like Zhou Xiaoping and Hua Qianfang. Do they experience ethical dilemmas? Perhaps only time can tell.

The New Left and the new Confucians continue to enjoy a cosy relationship with the Party-state. The liberals, on the other hand, are facing a difficult time: people like Xu Jilin and Qin Hui continue to speak out, but mostly on what happened in the Republican era or in the former Soviet Union. Zhang Ming, a retired professor from Renmin University, is doing something similar. Before the outbreak of COVID-19, Yu Jianrong was mostly sightseeing around the country, meeting friends, painting landscapes, helping parents to create names for their newborns, and occasionally lecturing at universities. . Now he is holed up in his headquarters in rural Beijing, selling paintings online and occasionally writing WeChat messages calling for the investigation of officials in relation to their negligence at the start of the pandemic.

Outspoken critics like Qiao Mu and Zhou Xiaozheng have left the country and settled in the United States. Many human rights lawyers and civil society activists are still threatened with or being kept in prison or under house arrest or tortured. This applies to the likes of Gao Zhisheng, Huang Qi and Wang Quanzhang (a human rights lawyer due to be released from jail but likely to be monitored thereafter and restricted in what he can do), to name just a few of the most famous ones. Clearly, this is an improvement on the Mao-era revolution – dissidents are not executed outright – but the cruelty towards them continues.

Increasing repression

This brings me to question the optimism that Cheek expresses in the book. At the time of the book’s writing, things might well have appeared optimistic (pp. 274–276, 282, 315–318, 330). But what Cheek terms the ‘association worlds’ are no longer that dynamic. As mentioned above, civil society organisations are increasingly under the Party’s control, and they will have to serve the increasingly autocratic Party-state to stay alive.

It is increasingly difficult for religious groups and public intellectuals to communicate under the radar of the internet censors. The monolithic state ideology of the Mao years has not gone: it is back with a vengeance and it seems that the age of extremes has not passed. Xi Jinping Thought is used to fill the place of Maoism, but the former is really the latter with new characteristics of high-tech and modern police and military control. The total propaganda state threatens to return.

A China that seems stable, relatively prosperous, and is treated with respect by other nations is a China that is also very vulnerable. During the time of the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, the police had to be stationed in subway cars in Beijing, kitchen knives had to be individually identified and labelled in some places, and parcel deliveries were stopped. China is treated with respect only when financial interests are involved. It is not clear what kind of world leader China is going to be. It doesn’t look likely that it will be a world leader of human rights and democracy.

That is a sad footnote to the role of the intellectuals over the past 120 years, whether leaders, campaigners, functionaries, professionals or dissidents. Particularly given the heavy price many of them have paid throughout all those years in terms of personal and academic integrity and even, in some cases, with their lives.

Widening the scope

So let me now turn to a couple of issues where I think more should be done in the future.

Cheek mentions intellectuals involved in the study of ethnic, religious and gender issues in his book, but he does not dwell on them. For each of these issues, however, there is a group of intellectuals who are working to define the meaning of the people, Chinese, and democracy.

For example, establishment intellectuals like Yang Shengmin (Hui), Ma Rong (Hui), Zhang Haiyang (Han), Naribilige (Mongolian), Tuerwenjiang (Uyghur), Tudenpengcuo (Tibetan) and Zhang Qiaogui (Bai) are playing an important role in academic studies and policy-making in relation to national minority issues. And there are many more such intellectuals.

Similarly, there is a frustrated though still struggling women’s movement in China, with its own feminist scholars and activists. And there is a critical mass of scholars on religious studies and an equally frustrated yet surviving religious activism. Each of these groups of intellectuals deserves a chapter or a paper of their own.

Chinese (in the ethnic sense) intellectuals based overseas also need to be incorporated, since they are actively engaged in defining the people, Chinese, and democracy. Those who constantly speak on political issues include academics like Li Cheng (in the US), Zheng Yongnian (in Singapore), and democracy activists like Hu Ping and Chen Pokong (also in the US), to name just a few. In addition, religious scholars and activists in Hong Kong are apparently having such an impact in mainland China that Hong Kong is increasingly brought under the control of the CCP.

All these intellectuals and activists are making an effort to influence what is happening in China. Even if the effect of their work is limited, their efforts are nonetheless important for China’s nation-building project.

Closing remarks

The Intellectual in Modern Chinese History is pretty much a flawless work. Nonetheless, there are a very few places where I think improvements could be made.

First of all, there are several translations and/or interpretations that I think ought to be reconsidered. On page 109, for example, the Three Principles of the People has been translated as nationalism (民族), socialism(民權) and people’s livelihood(民生). It seems to me that democracy should replace socialism, since that is what 民權, or people rights, means.

There are also some factual errors. For example, on page 122, Cheek writes: ‘Landlords were shot…’. Actually, many (if not most) of them were beaten, stoned or otherwise tortured to death. One reason was to save bullets. And on pages 189 and 211, the nickname for intellectuals as the Stinking Ninth doesn’t come from the Cultural Revolution. In actual fact, the ninth category in the Cultural Revolution was the unrepentant capitalist roaders. Rather, the Stinking Ninth comes from an old saying about so-called 九儒十丐. That is, in the Yuan dynasty Confucians ranked as the ninth after officials, priests, doctors, craftsmen and even prostitutes but before beggars.

There are also a few spelling errors. In footnote 5 on page 118, Jiang Zhongzhen 蔣中正should be Jiang Zhongzheng as far as the pinyin goes. On line 2 of page 210, Henan is used, but a dozen lines down, it is Hebei. Only one of them can be correct. And on page 265, it should probably be Kong jia dian, not Kong jiadian. On page 270, first paragraph, it should be Kang Xiaoguang, not Kang Shaoguang.

Lastly, there are only a couple of places where Chinese characters are used. I believe that Chinese characters should be used more throughout the book in relation to specific Chinese words and proper names so that special sayings, names and places can be more readily recognised, especially for the less familiar terms.

The above notwithstanding, Professor Cheek is one of the  leaders in the study of intellectuals in China, and this book represents the culmination of his various achievements in the field. It offers a panoramic picture of China’s intellectuals over the course of a hundred years and more, drawn from his profound knowledge and understanding of the subject.

Cheek has absorbed and integrated a wealth of perspectives and findings from the field of China studies. Few authors will be able to surpass him in terms of his comprehensiveness and incisiveness regarding the study of intellectuals and their role in the development and history of China.

Zhidong Hao is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Sociology of the University of Macau. He has published numerous articles on the sociology of intellectuals and professionals in China and is the author of Intellectuals at a Crossroads: The Changing Politics of China’s Knowledge Workers (State University of New York Press, 2003).

*Articles published by The Asia Dialogue represent the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of The Asia Dialogue or affiliated institutions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *